"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 1 December 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Ad Lib


[i spent the weekend with ten of my closest friends in the gold country .  ]

When the latest Nielsen biopsy

revealed that the top four TV

networks lost 6 percent of their

steadily shrinking pool of

viewers in the last year,

network programmers simply shook

their heads like cancer victims

trying to make sense of it all.

They knew that Dr. Doug Ross,

not to mention Conrad Bloom or Maggie

Winters, would not be able save

them. When the Audit Bureau of

Circulation added its voice to

the threnody with news that

seven of the nation's ten

largest metropolitan dailies

suffered circulation drops in

the six-month period ending 30

September, a few publishers

called meetings to discuss how

to better serve the illiterate

readers they were failing to

reach. But these were

half-hearted efforts, consisting

mostly of talk about the old

glory days, when all it took to

reel in thousands of new

subscribers was Dear Abby and The Far



At the same time that

traditional news and

entertainment producers cleave

themselves into smaller and

smaller, superfluously

specialized entities,

advertising thrives. In

supermarkets, grocery batons

that once bore utilitarian

instructions ("Please place

between orders") for boundary

transgressors too dull-witted to

intuitively grasp their purpose

are now emblazoned with glossy,

full-color (albeit

constrictingly rectangular) ads

for the latest Disney

blockbuster. Pool-table felts of

demographically desirable

barrooms are impregnated with

deep dye pitches from megalithic

breweries and local tire

outlets. Horror comic

publishers offer product-

placement opportunities to

advertisers eager to reach the

elusive gore-geek demographic.

In other words, pretty much the

only group of consumers that

advertisers can't reach now is

the one comprised of post-food-

junkie teetotalers who have no

interest in emetic cartoon

vampire-women. And they spend

all their money on heroin and

crack anyway, so who really



The remarkable reach that

advertising now claims,

especially compared to the

diminishing scope of traditional

mass media, is a factor that has

as much resonance for artists,

authors, and other cultural

exhibitionists as it does for

advertisers. In short, if you

want to be Lucille Ball or

Walter Winchell today, where do

you send your

résumé? To the

increasingly squeezed broadsheet

or the fading Peacock or to

Fallon McElligott? While no

single TV show or magazine can

aggregate eyeballs in the same

way that I Love Lucy or The

Saturday Evening Post once did,

even the worst commercial, given

its capacity for cross-platform

saturation deployment, can still

reach hundreds of millions of



[we drank, ate, watched movies, took a long walk in the woods, gambled.  ]

Which is simply to say, the new

Seinfeld, at least until the old

Seinfeld stops appropriating

other mens' wives long enough to

film some new American Express

commercials ("Don't wreck homes

without it!"), is Dinky, the

Taco Bell Chihuahua. "We treat

the campaign like a sitcom with

the dog as the lead character,"

copywriter Clay Williams

explained to The New York Times

recently, and after 19 mostly

mediocre, but widely seen,

episodes, the suspiciously thin

Gorditas gourmand is TV's most

beloved star. Fans send him

gifts and ask for his autograph

(if they could train Kevin

Sorbo to fulfill such requests,

why not a Chihuahua?).

Entrepreneurs peddle a wide

variety of Chihuahua-themed

merchandise, including plush

toys, T-shirts, and clingy,

neurotic companions. Williams'

work has even inspired the sort

of tribute usually reserved for

Steven Spielberg and other

brand-name auteurs - a lawsuit

alleging that he stole the

spokescanine idea from someone



Not so long ago, every other

copywriter was working on a

novel or a screenplay in between

detergent campaigns. Such souls,

while not extinct, are far rarer

now: Why trade in the big

paychecks and even bigger

audiences for a life of

impecunious obscurity? As

Spike/DDB and Kevin Williamson's

work for Tommy Hilfiger attests,

talent-migratory patterns

currently move in the opposite

direction. And it's not just

because the money's better and

the audiences are bigger.

Advertising now affords greater

opportunities for creative risk

than traditional forms of

entertainment media - especially

TV shows or magazines, which are

loathe to feature any content

that might offend advertisers.


Consider, for example, the

recently cancelled Miller Lite

campaign, in which the best ads

in the series parodied

anti-advertising: At the start

of each ad in the campaign's

earliest efforts, the

transparently ersatz creative

superstar Dick foreshadowed the

imminent anti-ad double-speak,

but none followed. A naked man

navigated a cornfield, a

magician's assistant sprouted

small rodents under her armpits.

There was no sales pitch,

implicit or otherwise, and no

attempt to create a positive

mood that one might then

associate with the product; the

ads were as random and pointless

and tedious as an undergrad film

major's senior project. In this

regard, they were even more

daring than the supposedly

subversive ad parodies that run

in AdBusters; the latter still

operate within the context of

traditional hucksterism,

trumpeting glib intentionality

above all else. But what made

the Miller Lite campaign truly

compelling, of course, was how

much there was at stake each

time an ad ran: careers,

millions of dollars in beer

sales, the coronary health of

distributors who felt

Fallon-McElligot's suspiciously

un-American approach was killing

their business. What other TV

programming or similarly

budgeted movie has taken

equivalent risks in the last few



[rockstar continues to beat then all silly at poker.  ]

Examples of advertising artistry

are everywhere now. A few weeks

ago at HotWired, Suck's saucy

sister site, a collaboration

between the webzine and

Hewlett-Packard made the

long-standing metaphor of

"brought to you by" sponsorship

concrete. Initially the site's

frontdoor was rendered in shades

of gray; only when you clicked on the Hewlett-Packard

banner - or moused over images on

the page - did color appear. In addition

to being an effective, highly

interactive ad, it also offered

implicit commentary on the whole

gray area of

advertising-editorial synergy,

and how such synergies, which

are usually far less visible

than they were in that

particular partnership, can

color editorial integrity.


Similarly, 4,470 Dollars, a work

by artist David Maas, will

appear in the December issue of

Artforum International. The

title derives from the amount

Maas spent to obtain a

full-color page in the magazine;

the "ad" is a photo of $4,470.

It's a wonderfully resonant

concept, one that vividly

suggests the power and purity of

advertising as an artistic

medium. Indeed, if artists were

to seek similar editorial

coverage from Artforum, they

would undoubtedly end up

pitching their work - perhaps to

the point of even altering its

content - in a manner that would

appeal most to the magazine's

editor. But as advertisers,

artists can present their vision

to Artforum's audience without



[bishop chased squirrels and slept in the king sized bed with us.  very nice.]

As a growing number of artists

look toward advertising as a

venue for creative expression,

signing ads is becoming an

increasingly popular practice.

Fifty years ago, a threadbare

novelist whose last book didn't

sell well may have anonymously

applied his talents to the

marketing of a new underarm

deodorant, but today's adteurs

take full credit for their work.

Ironically, most of the signed

work done by non-industry types

has been relatively lackluster

so far. This is especially true

of the Absolut Literature series

of ads, to which authors John

Irving, Dominick Dunne, Douglas

Coupland, and Julia Alvarez have

all contributed. While it's true

the series has intermittently

resurrected the tradition of the

two-short-stories-per-issue New

Yorker, none of the ads in the

series have come close to

suggesting the real

possibilities of the ad as art;

it's as if the participating

authors are under the impression

that their status as "real

writers" means they shouldn't

sacrifice their best work, or

even something they'd pawn off

on a low-paying literary

journal, for an ad.


What we'd really like is for the

concept of the signed ad to take

hold among the industry's true

stars: the director of the first

Bud Light "I Love You, Man,"

commercial; the Rockwellian

populist who has warmed the hearts

of so many with the long-running

"Milk Mustache" campaign; the

anonymous scribes behind our

modern bible, the Pottery Barn

catalog. These souls are the

true shapers and recorders of

our times; they deserve more

than just obscure affluence and

the recognition of their peers.

courtesy of St. Huck